As the dust settled and the blood slowly stopped thudding around people’s brains, the reality set in that England, yes England, had won a penalty shoot-out in a World Cup knockout game to progress to the 2018 quarter-finals.
Understandably, a lot has been written and said in the wake of England’s victory over Colombia. Scrolling through social media, the videos of improvised street celebrations mixed with chest-thumping headlines from various publications; photographs of delirious players, and snapshots of pure, unfiltered joy to create a real sense that football may, just may, be ‘coming home’. Everyone featured is buoyant, happy, basking in a wonderful moment of a generally wonderful tournament.
There is, however, a figure largely missing from the narrative of this morning’s victorious aftermath. A man whose place in this England team played, and will continue to play, a vital role in its successes and overall structure. A player who, off the back of the best domestic season of his career, continues to perform under the harshest of spotlights shone by a particular sect of media culture that fixates on his money, his interior design choices, or most recently in The Spectator the fact that he (contrary to, say, every football autobiography ever written) may have a ghostwriter. A player who, perhaps unsurprisingly given his toxic treatment in much of the British press, scored lowest on the BBC’s fan player ratings on the back of his performance in the round-of-sixteen clash.
It would be dishonest to be completely counterfactual here: Sterling was far from mesmerising against Colombia. He has also not lit up this tournament through individual brilliance like a Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane, or Kylian Mbappé. Sterling has, at times, struggled during England’s ongoing progression through the tournament. However, the fact that he remains a particular target for criticism says more about their discomfort with his personal and familial background than with his contributions on the football pitch. In reality, Sterling plays an important role in Gareth Southgate’s overall tactical plan that allows the rest of the side to flourish. Its importance was proved by a simple fact during the Colombia game: his withdrawal contributed to England losing shape, rhythm, and direction before Colombia’s late equaliser.
For a player best known for his extreme pace going forward, Sterling’s place in England’s iteration of 3-5-2 is to drop deep to receive the ball from one of three ball-playing centre-halves. He did this brilliantly against Colombia, regularly darting towards the halfway line to receive the ball before looking to swiftly offload the ball elsewhere. His runs are vital for England’s attacking play, as they generate the space for the ‘free-eights’ in Southgate’s system – usually Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard – to run into and attack on the front foot.
His performance also demonstrated his underrated physical strength and ability to hold up the ball; one Colombian player was left crawling over his back in futile attempts to try and prevent him rolling away and running past him. Through his intelligence and underappreciated strength, Sterling acts as both the attacking pivot and defensive outlet for this side. It is not glamourous work but is essential to the side’s overall strategy.
His significance was cemented when he was withdrawn late in the second half. Jamie Vardy is a fine player but his, and particularly Eric Dier’s, earlier introduction swung the pattern of play decisively in Colombia’s favour because neither man allowed England to keep playing their successful game. Vardy gamely chased balls over the Colombian back line, but thus failed to connect defence and attack like Sterling had done. This allowed Colombia to intercept English attacks with much greater ease.
Dier meanwhile, penalty heroics aside, was poor. Like against Belgium, he struggled to grasp the movement needed to be the sole holding midfielder in this formation, leading to him simultaneously offering little offensively (as a mobile passing outlet for the centre-backs) or defensively (as an intelligently positioned screen) throughout his time on the pitch. His shift into the back-three in extra-time improved his individual performance, but overall England still lacked the link between defence and attack that Sterling provided so well during his 88 minutes on the pitch.
Because of his long-established place in British football culture, Sterling finds it unjustly hard to receive due recognition; his tattoos and other’s prejudices will likely never give him the limelight of his teammates should England continue to progress. He is also not grabbing the headlines in the established ways: scoring key goals, snapping into key tackles and, in this case, scoring a decisive penalty. He is however, as he proved again against Colombia, an integral part of this team. If the Three Lions do have real hopes of bringing football home, then Sterling needs to continue, and to be better appreciated for, delivering his under-the-radar role that makes this team tick.